Robert, Meet Robert.

robert-gagnon

I saw a news story this evening that, after years of controversy, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Dr. Robert Gagnon have parted ways.

Gagnon, who had been an Associate Professor of New Testament at the seminary, is best known as being perhaps the most strident anti-LGBTQ voice within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and well beyond. He has written – voluminously and passionately – in support of his scriptural interpretations that homosexuality is sinful choice, and sexual perversion. His views are clearly out of line with the overwhelming majority of the denomination he’s part of, whether considering the beliefs of ordained ministers, ruling elders, seminary faculty, or the general membership. What’s surprising isn’t that he and the seminary have split, but rather, that it didn’t happen sooner.

While a student at PTS, Dr. Gagnon was one of my professors, teaching me Pauline and General Epistles. I can say that it was a strange experience.

One of the things that I remember most from the class was that Dr. Gagnon seemed extremely pleasant, kind, generally soft-spoken, and genuinely concerned with the well-being of his students – he was, in short, about the last kind of person that anyone familiar with his writings would imagine him to be. At no time during the class, which included covering epistles containing several of the go-to anti-gay “clobber verses,” did Gagnon seem to push his own interpretations of those verses.

That was important to me, since by that time (it must have been 2009 or 2010), my own study and understanding of the scriptures had already led me to believe that the traditional anti-LGBTQ interpretations of scripture were wrong. From the moment I learned that I’d be in Gagnon’s class, I was concerned that I’d be punished for not agreeing with his well-known anti-gay stance. I worried that either my grades would suffer because of being honest about my beliefs, or that I’d have to hypocritically hew to Gagnon’s hermeneutic in order to pass.

What actually happened was quite different. Dr. Gagnon conducted that class in a way that was entirely appropriate, and taught the material – covering the origins of, and underlying issues being addressed in, the epistles – in a way that did not particularly sell his interpretations regarding sexuality over opposing views. Only once or twice did I sense even a trace of bias, and it was never something that came up in exams.

The only real complaint I had with Gagnon’s teaching was with the nature of the exams themselves. They were designed to be impossible to authentically pass, or frankly, even to effectively study for. They were completely inappropriate for the nature of the course, and as far as I could tell, they only served to reinforce to the students that Gagnon was the smartest guy in the room. Raw exam scores were abysmal, and were then simply curved to bring them up to something actually usable. I specifically remember one exam when I scored a 22%. It was the second-best grade in the class (the best was a 24), and this was not an uncommon grade range for the exams. On that particular exam, Gagnon had jotted a note on its front, complimenting me for my “rigorous scholarship.”

There’s no way anywhere other than Bizarroland that a 22% on any appropriately-prepared exam could possibly illustrate “rigorous scholarship.” I could never understand why he didn’t just design exams that were realistic gauges of the students’ understanding of the actual depth of material that the course was intended to convey.

Other than that, I had no significant complaint with him or his classroom activity.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the whole story with Robert Gagnon. Whatever positive qualities he may have exhibited face to face in the classroom, his other, almost schizophrenic, side was never more than a mouse-click or two away. Everyone sitting in his classroom knew about his writings, which are not merely anti-affirming, they’re vehemently, almost rabidly, anti-gay.

I shudder to think about the scores of LGBTQ students over the years who sat in his classes, being treated civilly in person by someone they knew actually considered them sinful deviates who had no business in his class preparing for the ministry. I think the unfiltered bigot or homophobe who openly expresses his feelings is preferable to the one who smiles to your face while actually loathing you.

Professors are more to their students than just their classroom presence. Their entire public persona is providing instruction and sending messages to them, and Gagnon’s sent a terrible and personally harmful message to a significant minority of his students. It was comparable to having a professor on staff who was able to speak kindly and graciously to his black students in the classroom, while openly maintaining a white supremacist website in his free time.

In this country, we’re currently in the midst of a national debate about statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy and its leaders. A lot of that debate has involved discussion of another Robert – General Robert E. Lee. Lee most assuredly had a number of admirable personal qualities, but the evil that he chose to uphold by force overwhelmed those attributes and ruined the positive legacy he might have otherwise had – something that we’re only now, far too belatedly, coming to terms with. In the same way, the terrible harm that Robert Gagnon’s obsessive anti-LGBTQ polemic has caused overwhelms the professional goodness in him that I personally experienced. That’s a shame – but just as with that other Robert, it’s a shame that he’s caused himself. Unlike my sexual orientation, Gagnon’s anti-gay stance is entirely his choice.

 

Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

=====

On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.

What Do You See? (sermon 12/15/13)

Image

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

=====

There’s a beat-up old desk that sits in the library of Pittsburgh Theological seminary. The finish is half worn off, and the veneer is missing in places. Along the back edge of its top, there’s a console full of little pigeonholes and drawers and recesses to hold all sorts of accessories. There’s really nothing very remarkable about the desk at all; under different circumstances, it would have been carted off to the dump years ago But what makes this desk so special is that it used to be the writing desk of the great theologian Karl Barth, who lived and worked in Germany in the years leading up to World War II – and who was arguably the most important theologian of the 20th century. This ratty old desk has become a kind of a shrine, with people sometimes traveling for miles just to see it and get their picture taken with it. This was the desk that Barth used to write volume after volume of deep, profound books. And his essays denouncing Hitler and calling for the church to stand up against the Nazis. And the amazing confession of faith that’s part of our own Book of Confessions, the Barmen Declaration. All these works that changed the landscape of modern Christianity were written on the leather-padded top of this old desk. You can just imagine Barth, and his younger protégé, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, sitting around this desk, their glasses of beer leaving water stains on its top, while they discussed deep matters of the faith. For my own part, when I was attending seminary there in Pittsburgh as a commuting evening student, I’d drive into town, and if I had a little time before classes began, I’d try to catch a nap in the library. There was a little loveseat that actually sat right up against the desk, and I’d usually grab it to catch a few Zs. But the loveseat was too short for my 6-foot frame to stretch out on, so sometimes, if no one else was around, I’d actually stretch my legs out and prop my feet up on the desktop. I suppose if any of the staff had caught me doing that, they’d have expelled me, or maybe even dragged me out into the quad and burned me at the stake.

Well, not far from where my feet rested, propped up on top of the desk, was a painting. This painting used to hang on the wall in Karl Barth’s study, overtop of the desk, and he sometimes made reference to the painting in his writing. It’s a picture of the crucifixion; a really grotesque image of an ugly, beat up Jesus nailed to the cross, the weight of his body hanging down. Even the crossbar of the cross is drooping down, reflecting the pull of his body. To the left of the picture, we see Mary and the apostle John, and at the right, we see John the Baptist. He’s looking at Jesus, and his arm is stretched out and his finger is pointing at Jesus hanging on the cross, as if he’s telling us “Pay attention to this. Focus on this. This is what matters – him, and only him.”

Our gospel text today deals with John the Baptist. Brash, loudmouthed, socially unacceptable John the Baptist. He’s spent his life calling people to repentance, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is about to be unleashed on the world. He’s heard with his own ears God blessing Jesus at his baptism; he’s seen with his own eyes the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Surely, if there were anyone who could be certain, and have no doubts that Jesus was God’s specially chosen one, the Messiah, it would be John the Baptist. But that wasn’t the case, according to this story. During this ministry, John had been kind of a first-century rock star; throngs of people came out to hear him. But now, he’d been thrown into prison because he’d spoken out against the moral shortcomings of King Herod. How could something like this happen if Jesus was really the Messiah? And as far as he could tell, none of the stuff he’d expected a Messiah would do, were happening. The Romans were still in power. The religious leaders were still making a mockery of the religion.

So John sat in his dark, cramped prison cell, frustrated, confused, probably angry, and definitely full of doubt and fear. His mind wandered as he asked himself, over and over again: Had this all been some kind of cruel joke? Had it all been a waste of time? Had he been deluded about Jesus? So he sent word to Jesus, asking for a clear, no BS answer: cut to the chase – are you the Messiah or not?

Maybe it seems a little odd to have a Lectionary passage like this stuck into the advent and Christmas season. We’re looking forward to the birth of Christ, and the hope and joy that his birth brought into the world. We’re all wrapped up in the whirlwind of holiday activities, and continually being reminded of the happiness that the season is supposed to be all about. So why, then, do we look at a gospel passage that focuses on doubt, and confusion, and fear?

Well, maybe it isn’t so odd after all, if you think about it. Even though we’re supposed to be focusing on the joy of the season, every year there’s a measurable increase in people’s feelings of dread, and doubt, and fear in this season. There are more bouts with depression and requests for counseling, and even an increase in suicides. It’s like all the talk of hope and happiness and joy just magnifies the problems that we really have. Most of us have probably felt that way one time or another. We wonder why unexpected negative things happen in our personal lives. Or maybe the life of the church. Or maybe the world in general. And that translates into spiritual doubts and fears. Let’s face it, we’re all modern, scientifically-savvy people. And all this talk about mysterious, magical-sounding events – virgin births, and angels and other heavenly creatures dropping out of the sky singing and scaring the crap out of the shepherds in the fields, and strange stars that move through the sky and then hover overtop a single house – it makes us wonder, like John the Baptist – is this faith for real? Is Jesus the real item? Is it really worth our time and trouble to try to live out our faith? Or have we all just been suckered into believing some fairy tale made up by a bunch of unsophisticated ancient people who were taken in by just one of many would-be messiahs? The time and the setting are different, but in some ways, some days, we can sit in our own prison cell made out of doubt and fear, and feel just as disappointed and cheated as John must have felt while he sat in jail. And, maybe especially at this time of year, our hearts can ask the same question John the Baptist asked Jesus: Are you for real? Are you the Messiah?

But instead of giving John the kind of black and white answer he’d hoped for, Jesus said, “What do you see? The lame walk. The blind see. All manner of the poor and the suffering have received God’s good news and blessings.”

Jesus’ point was that the kingdom of God had actually already begun to enter the world, through him. It was the entry point of hope, and healing, and God’s acceptance of all the weakest and most doubting and fearful and suffering in the world. The message was that God was here, with them and for them and sustaining them through whatever happened to them. That showed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that he was indeed the Messiah who was ushering it in.

That was the good news that Jesus had for John – that his life’s work and efforts hadn’t been in vain. And it’s good news for us, too. The good news that as we go through this life, and as we deal with its scars and bruises, its setbacks and uncertainties, its discomforts and disagreements and divisions, that God is in the midst of all those situations, walking the path with us, lifting us up, giving us hope, speaking love and support to our hearts.

When we find ourselves asking the same question John asked, Jesus answers us the same way: What do you see? What do you hear? Look at God at work in the lives of my followers, and in the life of the church. The hungry are being fed. The naked are being clothed. The homeless are being sheltered, the sick are being treated, and the persecuted, oppressed, and discriminated against are all being lifted up and welcomed into God’s unconditional love. All this is confirmation to us that no matter how difficult things may look or feel, God is truly at work in this world. And God is with us through all of our difficulties. This isn’t some fairy tale; it’s real – and Jesus is at the center of it all.

So when we wonder, in the midst of our toughest times, if we’re just kidding ourselves, or if Jesus is truly God’s chosen one, the one worthy of our faith and loyalty – we can look to John the Baptist for advice. The fiery prophet, the take-no-prisoners preacher, the great martyr of the faith – who, even himself, faced these same kinds of doubts. We can look to him, pictured there in that painting over Karl Barth’s desk, and we can follow his bony finger, stretched out and point straight at ugly Jesus on the cross, and him saying “Look to him. Always look to him. What do you see? What do you hear?”

Thanks be to God.